One of the ways that mothers seek to talk about the value of their mothering is to say: this is my job. This is hard, skilled work that takes up much of my time and brainspace; this is something that matters and produces an end result: this is a job with the value of other people’s jobs, it’s just not (mostly, directly) paid.
But when we say it’s a job, we do two things: firstly, we accept that value to the economy is “real” value, and only by being “just like” that can mothering (and other parenting) have real value. Secondly, when we take on that metaphor, we take on a whole load of others, and lose the power to talk about our lives in our terms.
First things first: parenting contributes to the economy, sure. It doesn’t directly promote ecomonic growth, as working out of the home and paying someone else to mind your child during the day does, though, so you may find that your hard graft doesn’t wind up on the right balance sheet (thanks to Ruth for that link). But, for example, breastfeeding saves the NHS money; I think we (defining “we” as “people who don’t have a vested interest in selling formula milk”) agree that’s a good thing.
However, I just don’t think that arguing parenting as an economically vital activity is helpful. Because some of the things I value doing as a parent are not helping any economy. Collecting shells on the beach? Making up silly words to the Postman Pat theme song? Deciding that, for my own sanity, saying “bloody” doesn’t count as swearing in front of the kids? Whatever. Value is in fun and joy and the search for myself within my parenting. Let’s say that clearly. Let’s question any society that doesn’t hear us say it.
And as for money? We shouldn’t be paid for parenting. All human beings deserve the dignity of a basic income, parents and children as much as any other. Humanity is the test, not sweated labour. Even if you’re just having fun, you shouldn’t starve.
And the other reason? The metaphorical one? That’s a slippery eel to wrestle (see? See what I did there?). It starts with pregnancy – Carol Tavris, in The Mismeasure of Woman, discusses the ways in which pregnant women are conceptualised when their rights are debated. Just the same as a temporary disability? And then, Tavris uses a suggestion by Zillah Eisenstein: what if, instead of conceptualising the “normal” body as that of a man, and legislating exceptions from that, we said that the “normal” body was that of a pregnant woman? All of a sudden, the world changes:
The law, she shows, would immediately have to become more complex and sensitive to human diversity than it is, because pregnancies range from being uncomplicated and uneventful to being seriously disabling to the mother-to-be, and because some women, like all men, will not become pregnant.
And I experience it, too, in discussions about childbirth. Is it painful? Well, we take painkillers for a broken leg, don’t we? Why wouldn’t you want to be in hospital when there’s pain and blood and risk? Well, because it’s not like having a broken leg, it’s not a dysfunction, it doesn’t need correction: it’s childbirth. It is as it is. And why must we always talk about it in terms accessible to those who haven’t experienced it? Let them come to us. Let them use our words for a change.
And then it goes on. Are you as tired after a week of broken sleep with a teething baby as I am after my nightshift? Am I as stressed about potty training as you are about your appraisal? Is my acheivement in negotiating the kids’ bedtime as important as the training I delivered at my paid employment? For the second time this post: whatever. I’m not going to speak that language. I’m not going to talk myself into knots to justify myself.
My parenting is not a job (though sometimes it’s hard work). My kids’ play is not their job either (though it’s essential for their development). We work, we play, we parent, we watch TV, we fart, we stare into the middle distance and think about sex. We are human, and we have value. That may be a hippie thing to say; it may be a socialist thing to say (I plead guilty to both). Whatever.